When I was a Master of Divinity student, I completed a concentration in Christian education, mainly because I wanted to learn how to lead Christian education efforts that were more substantive and “meaty” than what I had come across in my formation as a child and teenager. By this time, I was also leading youth group and teaching Sunday school at a church, which forced me to realize how much subpar material was out there in church resource catalogs.
When I looked at evangelical resources, I found lots of programs that tried so hard to look fun and cool to teenagers that their treatment of Scripture almost seemed an afterthought. As I became familiar with Episcopal resources, hoping to find a program that included teaching on the sacraments and church tradition, I found outdated material that no one had bothered to revise in a few decades or lectionary-based curricula with questionable hermeneutics.
I cringed my way through many catalogs and curricula, trying to adapt their content to make them, if not better, at least less awful. Still, so many of the ideas, activities, and discussions they suggested fell flat in their ability to interpret Scripture or lift up the Sacraments in a faithful and engaging way.
This background has made my encounter with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) all the more surprising and encouraging. I was already acquainted with Godly Play, a spin-off of CGS developed by an Episcopal priest, but I was vaguely aware that Godly Play owed most of its genius to another, older, and in some ways more faithful methodology. My opportunity to learn more about it has come during my time at St. George’s in Nashville, which offers CGS for its children Sunday school program. I have been at St. George’s for six years, but in the past year I’ve drunk the CGS Kool-Aid, taking a 90-hour formation course and delving into the complexity and beauty of this method of formation.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd owes much of its insight to the pedagogical work of Maria Montessori (1870-1952). I knew Montessori only as the founder of an alternative method of schooling that encourages a child-led education; I did not realize that Montessori was also a faithful Catholic who wanted to see her groundbreaking work in education applied to work with children in the Church. Two other Italian Catholic women, Sofia Cavaletti and Gianna Gobbi, developed Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in Rome in the 1950s based on Montessori’s work. I could go on at length about its merits, but I’ll limit myself to a few observations of how and why this method of formation embodies what I felt was lacking in most Christian education efforts.
1. CGS exhibits trust in the gifts God has given the Church
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd doesn’t start with a programmatic, classroom-based pedagogy that requires the teacher to entertain, sermonize, or do a series of awkward contortions to keep kids interested. Instead, it begins with trust in God’s work in the lives of children and faith in the transformative power of the gifts God has given the Church. Dr. Fred Edie, with whom I studied Christian education during seminary, describes those gifts as primarily four-fold: Scripture, baptism, Eucharist, and the Church calendar.
These four “holy things” are at the center of the Church’s life and community and give pattern to the Christian community’s life together. Together, they form an inexhaustible source of reflection upon the nature of God, the good news of the gospel, and the shape our lives are to take as Christians, and they should be at the heart of all our Christian education efforts.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd focuses upon these four gifts, giving children the time to reflect upon the stories of Scripture, the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, and the way in which we pattern time upon the life of Christ in a series of fasts and feasts. CGS invites children into mystagogy, the ancient form of Christian education that reflects upon the mysteries of the sacraments. In this way CGS transcends the endless pursuit of relevance seen in so many Christian education curricula, a pursuit that makes them obsolete in a few years’ time. Instead CGS begins with trust that God’s gifts have an inherent power to speak to and transform the child.
2. CGS engages the entire child: body, mind, and spirit
Many of the current Christian education methods that fall flat don’t work from a properly robust, multi-dimensional understanding of the student as an intellectual, physical, and spiritual human being. For instance, some curricula fail because they use an overly didactic and cerebral approach, in which the teacher explains and then tries to make relevant the main point of that day’s lesson. Such pedagogies assume in Enlightenment fashion that the intellect is the supreme capacity of the student: through verbal communication alone, information will move from the brain of the teacher to the brain of the student (which brings to mind one of my favorite Far Side cartoons).
In contrast, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd assumes that children learn through imitation, active participation, and quiet reflection in a space that doesn’t assault them with facts but invites them into a mystery. The way CGS teaches children about prayer is a good example; instead of talking about or explaining prayer to children and telling them to go pray later on, the CGS classroom (called an “atrium”) is a prayerful space where the catechist invites children to encounter and be with God in ways that honor their physical, spiritual, and intellectual capacities. The child is invited to help lead short corporate times of prayer, to make prayer cards, to respond to a presentation with a prayer drawing, to sing a song of praise in response to a Bible story. Instead of seeing the classroom as a place for abstract discussion about practice, which then happens outside of the classroom, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd makes room for children to practice the Christian faith in body, mind, and spirit.
3. CGS invites the child to encounter God
Stories of how CGS forms children in Christian faith are endless; one story in particular captured my heart during my formation course, because it shows the power of God to speak a word of hope to children and their life circumstances.
The Dominican sister who led part of my formation program this year told a story about a student she taught at a Catholic school that welcomed children from many low-income, struggling families. This student had a particularly difficult and unstable family life and at times stayed with relatives because of his parents’ inability to care for him. One morning he showed up early in her CGS classroom with a pillowcase stuffed full of clothes, saying that the relative with whom he had been staying had kicked him out of her home that morning and told him to take his belongings and not return. The sister invited him to stay in her classroom while she decided how to respond to this incident.
She noticed that the boy went over to the font in the baptism area in her room. He began pouring water from the pitcher over his hand into the font, the gesture of baptism he had learned from her presentations. Each time he poured the water, she heard him say to himself, “I am a child of God.” It was beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful to hear this story of how God reminded this young boy of the central truth about his identity, at a time when he was surrounded by instability and mistreatment, and CGS was the vehicle by which that truth was communicated to him.
I can’t imagine what else I could hope for in the Christian formation of my own children. CGS’s confidence in the gifts given the Church, its holistic method of addressing children (mind, body, and spirit), and the testimony given to it by so many stories — all these reasons have led me to drink the CGS Kool-Aid.
I’d invite you and your children’s ministry to take a sip.
To learn more, visit National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
 Edie cites Lutheran liturgist Gordon Lathrop’s book Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Fortress Press, 1993), which describes the ordo as set forth by Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann and the Church Fathers.